Forget history, forget science. Just cherry pick a few high-profile examples, make a few specious connections, ignore evidence to the contrary. We get it: In certain testosterone-addled minds, fillies and mares can’t compete against males without risking death or a barren womb:
“That’s just the way this planet is.”
Say that about Makybe Diva, Ouija Board, Gorella, Soviet Song, Intercontinental, Azeri, Serena’s Song, Sharp Cat, Dahlia, Personal Ensign, Lady’s Secret, Miesque, Imp, Regret, Busher, Gallorette, and Beldame.
And then shut up.
Of all the debates that have arisen following Eight Belles’ tragic post-Derby accident, the one over whether fillies should race colts is the most ridiculous, the most baseless, the most groundless. It’s a bizarre superimposition of human sexism over equine abilities, and it’s tiresome and distracting, especially when there are more significant issues to address — like drugs in racing, track surfaces, and breeding.
Really care about protecting horses? Then worry about the matters that actually affect their safety. Hint: None have anything to do with gender.
There wasn’t much excitement about the Belmont the week before the race. No Triple Crown was on the line and there would be no rematch between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners. Trainer Patrick Biancone was planning to enter his allowance winner Time Squared and owner Larry Roman his grossly overmatched colt, Digger. There was a $1 million purse for the taking, and no one seemed to want it. But then trainer Todd Pletcher entered Rags to Riches, and suddenly, a race was on. There was a storyline, the battle of the sexes, something for handicappers and racing fans to talk about.
We see fillies run against males so rarely in American racing that the angle couldn’t be anything but compelling — I certainly wasn’t immune, especially when it seemed that so many dismissed Rags to Riches purely because of her gender, overlooking her 4-for-5 record, three Grade 1 wins this year (her last in the Kentucky Oaks, in which she ran the last eighth in :12 under a hand ride), speed, and pedigree, and although she would have been my pick for all those reasons on Saturday, there was the added frisson of wanting to see her win just because she was a filly. It was silly, and I admired the nonchalance of her owners, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, who seemed a little amused by the fuss, before and after, pointing out that in Europe fillies run against males often and it’s not much cause for comment.
Except, it is in America. Here, we race with the entrenched belief that female and male horses can’t compete fairly against each other. It’s an attitude that hasn’t changed much since Ruffian met Foolish Pleasure for the match race that would be her death, and it emerged after the Belmont, when, amid all the superlatives being heaped on a very deserving horse, some began to grouse that it was the five pound weight difference that gave Rags to Riches the edge, or her five-week layoff, or that Curlin bounced (in fact, figure-wise, he hardly regressed). Look again at the way she recovered from the stumble at the start, her wide trip throughout, and how she dug in and refused to let Curlin by even though he came at her again and again in the stretch. Rags to Riches was simply the better horse, and her win had nothing to do with gender.
What’s interesting, though, is how much some want to make it about gender. In the post-race press conference, a reporter asked Pletcher if there was anything “not ladylike” about Rags to Riches that made it possible for her to beat males on the track. Here’s Sherry Ross in the New York Daily News expanding on that theme:
Todd Pletcher calls Rags to Riches “a little bit bossy,” a polite way of saying that if the Belmont Stakes-winning filly were Naomi Campbell, she’d be bloodying her trainer with a cell phone.
Rags to Riches is Paris Hilton, only with talent and a healthy appetite. One time when Pletcher peeked in her stall and interrupted a meal, he said the filly came lunging at him “and almost took my head off.”
So when Pletcher described her as being “ornery as ever” yesterday morning after her historic win in Saturday’s 139th Belmont Stakes, that was a very good thing. She is entitled to act every bit the diva after becoming only the third filly ever to win the longest leg of the Triple Crown.
Rags to Riches, a diva? Ridiculous. She’s a horse, and a very good one, and her behavior around the feed tub is no different than that of many thoroughbreds, male or female.
But there’s a bigger issue obscured by all this chatter: American racing is sexist, and not only in regards to its equine athletes.
More than half of the sport’s fan base is female, women occupy more than 40% of racetrack jobs, and almost a quarter of the 2007 National Handicapping Championship competitors were women (and they weren’t all, despite what one contest staffer claimed, “beards”), but from the backside to the frontside to the grandstand, women are overlooked. On the backstretch, that marginalization affects women’s quality of life, safety, and economic opportunities. On the frontside and in the grandstand, it means fewer high level officials and and prominent owners, trainers, and handicappers than there ought to be.
A few numbers:
- Of the 42 members of the TRA board of directors, one is a woman.
- Of the 14 members of the NTRA board of directors, one is a woman (and she’s the first woman ever appointed to the NTRA board).
- Of the 25 candidates currently up for election to the Breeders’ Cup board, two are women.
- Of the 14 seniors officers and managers of Equibase, one is a woman.
- Of the 42 TRA member tracks, only one has a female president or CEO; of the 59 non-TRA member tracks, four have female managers.
- Of the 15 senior executives at the Daily Racing Form, one is a woman.
- Of the 155 bylined articles that appeared in the Daily Racing Form in a recent week, 13 were by women.
- Of the 20 starters in this year’s Kentucky Derby, one was conditioned by a female trainer.
- In the 133 years of the Kentucky Derby, only 13 female trainers have entered a Derby starter.
- Of the eight Kentucky Derby blogs posted on the official Derby web site, one was authored by a woman.
- Of all the guests that have so far appeared on the Youbet.com handicapping webcast, Playing to Win, zero have been women.
I could go on; there are plenty more examples out there, in the sport’s barns and offices, publications and literature. But there’s no need, I’m not revealing anything surprising. The subject percolates up periodically (most recently in February, when Equidaily posted on the topic).
The question is, what can be done about it? Rags to Riches winning the Belmont is a tremendous marketing moment for the sport, especially when it comes to reaching out to women. But does the sport know what to do with the opportunity? I’m expecting it to fumble, as it does so often — the culture and infrastructure that could capitalize on her game classic triumph doesn’t exist. And that’s a shame, because for racing to thrive in the future, it needs women as fans, and as handicappers, officials, and executives.
Vic Zast gets an earful for his condescending, stereotype-laden February 12 Blood-Horse essay on women and racing (as does the magazine for publishing it) in the February 19 issue’s letters to the editor section: “What were you thinking printing an article with that malicious tone in a magazine aimed at horse owners, breeders, etc …,” writes JoLynn Johnston, director of marketing at River Downs. “Horse racing has plenty of competition and enemies in the world, so why an upstanding, well-produced industry publication like the Blood-Horse would stoop to printing this trash is unfathomable.”
Deb Morris of Las Vegas was even more scathing in her response: “After reading Victor Zast’s ‘Advice for Men Only,’ I had to look at the magazine and check the year. Yes, it was 2005, not 1805, or 1905 … Women love racetracks. Plenty of us love the action, the betting, and the thrill of winning … Pick winners with a hat pin? Sorry, most women nowadays use speed figures, class, Tomlinson numbers, etc. … Not just men are horse racing lovers. Not only do I know who Secretariat was, I know who Sir Ivor was. And Domino. And I had Smarty Jones. Did you?”
Right on, ladies! The letters aren’t available online; many thanks to Alan Mann, proprietor of Left at the Gate, for sending me a photocopy.
“The female jockey in South Florida, the place where it all started when Diane Crump broke the sex barrier in 1969 by riding at Hialeah Park, is suddenly an endangered species. And the trend doesn’t appear confined to South Florida.” Only two women jockeys — newcomers Chantal Sutherland and Stacey Podobinski — have ridden in the Gulfstream meet this year. I know there are a couple of female apprentices in Philadelphia, and Jill Jellison is riding right now at Tampa, but I can’t think of a single female rider in New York or California (although there must be a couple). Where have all the women riders gone? (Miami Herald)
Vic Zast helps horseplaying men understand women:
“She believes in picking her winners with a hat pin. The colors of the jockey’s silks, the horse’s name, the appearance of the owners in the walking ring — these are all legitimate reasons for women to take a stab at a longshot. A woman’s intuition works in many ways, and when it does, don’t be surprised. Women can tell when owners and trainers expect their horses will win by some savvy sixth sense. She doesn’t need to hear from you which horse is going to win on the basis of track bias.”
I’d make fun, but it just doesn’t seem right. I was raised to respect my elders, even when they’re spouting tired stereotypes. (Blood-Horse)
Pay attention to female racing fans.
I know that on a typical day at the track the crowd is overwhelmingly male. Last night I went to Suffolk to catch a couple of Santa Anita races and I was one of about three women in the place, and the only one under 60. The numbers aren’t as bad on a sunny weekend afternoon, although even then they still skew to men. Yet, as research commissioned by the NTRA in 2004 showed, 52% of loyal horseracing fans (defined as consumers 18+ who are very or somewhat interested in racing) are women. Women follow the Triple Crown races. They express interest in going to the track and learning more about the sport. The only other sport women are majority fans of is the WNBA.
Yet there are almost no advertising or fan education initiatives aimed at women, and the impression one gets from most racing officials and executives is that women fans don’t exist.
What’s earned my ire this evening is the news out of Grand Forks, ND, today, about Andy Stronach, son and heir of racing magnate Frank Stronach, who’s testing new betting machines. This little detail about a machine in development caught my attention:
Stronach had the machines delivered to the Turf Club in two large semitrailers labeled ‘She-Tips,’ which is a separate project that will incorporate female models into betting machines and online betting services, he said.
Another trailer outside Fargo’s Howard Johnson Inn for more than a month served as an auditioning studio, where models were photographed in sporting gear, Stronach said. More than 2,000 models have been photographed in the United States, Canada and Mexico as part of the project, he said.
“Horse racing has been all guys when you get to off-track betting,” he said. “These girls aren’t experts in betting, but they’ve got this huge database to back them up.”
I’m sure Mr. Stronach thinks he’s making a winning bet that customers will like looking at a pretty face as they’re losing their money. The She-Tipster machines may well spread to simulcast lounges across the land and women as well as men will use them without complaint. Like the poker ads illustrated by busty blondes that pop up on DRF.com and the handicapping system ads populated by scantily clad models in the pages of American Turf Monthly, the She-Tipsters will be just another slightly annoying background image to be ignored by female fans intent on enjoying racing.
And that’s the problem, this having to enjoy the sport in spite of the message that comes through in certain ads and which will come through on Stronach’s machines: That as a woman you’re not the intended audience, that you don’t factor into some racing executive’s business plan, that you’re where you don’t belong. It’s a message that keeps some women from going to the track on their own or from enjoying their time there as much as they should, which only harms racing in the long run. Women are already fans; they’re ready to be more engaged fans. A good first step toward making that happen would be recognizing women as a valuable segment of the sport’s fan base and not marginalizing them as fans and bettors with initiatives like this one.